With 2 lawsuits, campaign to open Harpswell beach goes public
HARPSWELL — Yard signs, bumper stickers and T-shirts with the message "Save Cedar Beach" are popping up over town after advocates launched a public campaign last month to restore access to the beach.
The campaign is part of an effort by the Cedar Beach/Cedar Island Supporters to build solidarity and raise funds to support two lawsuits against property owners who are blocking access to the Bailey Island beach.
The group has also started a mailing list – which recently published a newsletter with the headline "WE WILL BE VICTORIOUS!!!" – and a Facebook page that has already accrued 737 "likes."
CB/CIS President Mike Helfgott said the group reached its $100,000 fundraising goal after it hosted a pancake breakfast on Sunday that attracted around 300 attendees and net profits of nearly $7,000.
"But we have a long way to go if, in fact, we have to fight both of these cases through to conclusion," Helfgott said. "(The costs are) going to be much more than that. Our hope is that we don't have to see them through and instead have a meeting of the minds."
Both lawsuits have been filed in Cumberland County Superior Court.
The first one, which was filed last October, seeks a prescriptive easement on the private portion of Cedar Beach Road that leads to Cedar Beach. It is owned by Charles and Sally Abrahamson, who closed public access to the road in 2011.
CB/CIS and the Abrahamsons agreed to stay the lawsuit until July to negotiate an out-of-court settlement, but negotiations broke off after one requirement by the Abrahamsons was not fulfilled in time.
CB/CIS lawyer Marty Eisenstein, of Brann and Isaacson, said the case is now awaiting trial.
CB/CIS was banking on the Board of Selectmen negotiating an agreement with the Aspatores to make the settlement with the Abrahamsons a reality.
But after two failed attempts by selectmen and the Aspatores to meet by the deadline imposed by the Abrahamsons, CB/CIS decided to sue.
The second lawsuit, which was filed in early August, seeks to reaffirm an easement for Harpswell residents on the Aspatores' land that connects Cedar Beach Road with Cedar Beach.
Helfgott said CB/CIS believes residents have a right to walk over the Aspatores' land because a quitclaim deed and purchase-and-sale agreement for the parcel states that a public easement exists for the residents of Harpswell.
The Aspatores contest that claim. They are required to respond to CB/CIS's civil complaint by Sept. 20, according to a court document.
But based on recent statements from the Aspatores' lawyer and selectmen Chairwoman Elinor Multer, such a resolution might not be likely.
Sometime in August, Multer said, the Aspatores canceled a meeting with selectmen and left for their out-of-state residence after witnessing the CB/CIS campaign.
"(Rachel Aspatore) was upset by the signs she saw and people talking (in town about the issue)," Multer said, recalling a phone conversation she had with Aspatore, "so they turned around and went right back (home)."
Selectmen previously attempted to meet in July with the Aspatores and their lawyer, Judy Metcalf of Eaton Peabody, via teleconference to negotiate access and use of Cedar Beach.
But the meeting was canceled because "a further conversation at (the) time would entrench rather than resolve the differences," according to Metcalf in a prepared statement sent in July.
Metcalf also said at the time that if CB/CIS sued the Aspatores, it would "make it more difficult" for the selectmen and her client to reach a resolution.
"I was very disappointed because I thought we could get somewhere if there was a face-to-face discussion, but they weren't up for it," she said. "... If they get a settlement with the town, the lawsuit will go away. It will become moot."
The chairwoman also reaffirmed that it is the Board of Selectmen's goal to reopen access to Cedar Beach, which is sometimes also known as Robinhood Beach.
"Oh yes, no question about that," Multer said. "But the terms have to be reasonable on both sides, one would hope."
Metcalf did not respond to a request for comment.
Helfgott said he feels bad if the Aspatores were upset, but added that the expression of public support for saving Cedar Beach access shouldn't have been a surprise to them.
"We have been trying to get the Aspatores' attention for almost a year," he said, "and it seems only disingenuous to us that they are shocked and amazed that people are upset at them."
According to a July statement from Metcalf, the Aspatores became involved with the Cedar Beach issue after they learned about approval at Town Meeting in March of $220,000 in bonds to secure access to the beach.
The release of bonds is contingent on successful settlements being reached with the Abrahamsons and Aspatores.
Helfgott said the Cedar Beach campaign is personal for some residents who lost access to other public access points in the past.
"This is, at the very least, a town-wide issue," Helfgott said. "While it’s Cedar Beach today, it could be other beaches tomorrow. ... On the signs we paid for, they all have two messages: on one side, it says 'Save Cedar Beach,' but on the other, it says 'Harpswell, let's not lose another beach.'"